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SEE YOU IN COURT! - June 2012

CABE Journal

June 2012

Authors: Thomas B. Mooney

Bob Bombast, veteran member of the Nutmeg Board of Education, was confused. The Governor’s education reform initiative had been viciously attacked and hotly debated. But by the end of the session, the General Assembly approved a revised bill unanimously, the Governor had signed it, and now everyone was singing kumbaya.

Bob asked Mr. Superintendent to report on this new legislation at the next meeting. There, Mr. Superintendent explained that the new law establishes a new expedited procedure for terminating the employment of “ineffective” teachers.

“Thank God,” said Board member Penny Pincher. “Tom Teacher should be the first to go. He gives loads of homework, but never returns it to his students. He must be ineffective for sure.” The other Board members murmured assent.

“Don’t worry,” Mr. Superintendent assured the Board members. “We know all about Tom, and we will take care of him.” But as Mr. Superintendent drove home, he realized that he was now on the hot seat to move on Tom, and fast.

The next day, Mr. Superintendent called Ms. Principal, who supervises Tom. He described the Board’s discussion, and told her that they better act quickly. A good soldier, Ms. Principal promptly scheduled a meeting with Tom and his union representative. At the meeting with Tom, she reviewed his evaluation history and broke the news. “Tom, we have given you extra help for a couple of months now, but it just isn’t working. As you know, they changed the Tenure Law, and ineffective teachers can be fired. Of course, we would gladly accept your resignation as a professional courtesy, but one way or the other, you are going to have to go.”

Tom and Bruno, his union representative, were shocked at this news; Tom’s support plan had just started and a final judgment was not due until next October. After a brief caucus, Bruno told Ms. Principal that Tom certainly would not be resigning. But given the pressure from the Board members, Mr. Superintendent and Ms. Principal felt that they had no other choice but to move forward, and, after checking with Bob Bombast, Mr. Superintendent initiated termination proceedings.

Mr. Superintendent was shocked by how difficult those proceedings were. He had hoped to follow the new expedited procedures, but the hearing officer ruled against him on that. The hearing dragged on and on as Mr. Superintendent and Ms. Principal were forced to go through a dozen or more classroom observations to demonstrate Tom’s poor performance. At the end of the hearing, however, the hearing officer ruled that, though Tom’s performance was “nothing to write home about,” he could not be considered incompetent. Accordingly, she recommended his retention.

Mr. Superintendent decided to bring the case to the Board anyway. Mr. Superintendent shared the hearing officer’s report with the Board, and urged that they vote to terminate Tom’s employment. “Maybe the hearing officer is satisfied with mediocre teachers,” he concluded, “but Nutmeg should not be.” With that, Bob thanked Mr. Superintendent, and the Board voted promptly to terminate Tom’s employment. What are Tom’s chances for success on appeal? 

                                                                    *        *        *

The Board in Nutmeg does not understand how the law works, what their role is, and when the modest but helpful changes in the new law will be implemented. Before considering the impact of the educational reform bill on evaluation and tenure, however, we must keep one important aspect of the Tenure Act in mind.

The Tenure Act has and continues to set out very different roles for the Superintendent and the Board. The Superintendent prosecutes termination cases, and the Board sits as the judge. Due process includes the requirement for an impartial decision-maker. Once the Superintendent has decided to terminate a teacher’s employment, he or she should not discuss the case with the Board. Moreover, the Board members in Nutmeg should never have targeted Tom Teacher for termination.

As to evaluation and tenure, the reform legislation makes significant incremental changes. By July 1, 2012, the State Board of Education, in consultation with the Performance Evaluation Advisory Council, is required to publish new guidelines for teacher evaluation. The revised statute prescribes the elements of those guidelines in much greater detail. Moreover, the guidelines are to be piloted in the coming year, and that pilot will be the subject of a study by the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut, which must be completed by January 1, 2014. At that point, the State Board of Education will be able to validate the guidelines.

Once the new guidelines are validated, boards of education have an important responsibility to adopt revised teacher evaluation plans in accordance with those new guidelines for implementation during the 2014-2015 school year. Boards must get input concerning the new plan from their professional development committee, an entity required by law with responsibility to “provide for the ongoing and systematic assessment and improvement of both teacher evaluation and professional development of the professional staff members of each such board...” That committee must include representatives of the teachers’ and administrators’ unions, but the membership is otherwise up to the boards to determine. Significantly, however, the board of education continues to have the ultimate authority to adopt revised evaluation plans.

That responsibility relates directly to the most significant change in the tenure statute. Now, the superintendent may initiate termination proceedings if a teacher has been evaluated as “ineffective” (as opposed to “incompetent”). In such cases, those proceedings will be subject to new, abbreviated procedures wherein the only questions for the hearing officer are whether the evaluations were done in good faith in accordance with the newly-revised teacher evaluation plan, and whether the evaluations were reasonable in light of the evidence presented. This new provision should facilitate the dismissal of teachers who are not effective. However, given the timeline for validating the new guidelines, these new procedures may not be available until boards of education adopt new teacher evaluation guidelines for the 2014-2015 school year.

These two provisions are just a small part of the comprehensive reform legislation. These changes will eventually make it easier for administrators and boards of education to assure that only effective teachers remain in our classrooms. But we must keep in mind that this is the first step. There is still much work to be done, both in revising teacher evaluation plans in accordance with the new guidelines and in pressing the General Assembly to continue its reform efforts.

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